- Laura Johnson is the director of Zebedee Management. She started it in 2017 with her sister-in-law.
- It was an uphill at battle at first, but now business is booming and her clients land big gigs.
- This is what her job is like, as told to writer Jenny Powers.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with talent agent Laura Johnson. It has been edited for length and clarity.
The idea for a specialist talent agency came to me and my then-friend, now-sister-in-law Zoe while we were walking on the beach one afternoon in Eastern England.
It was 2017 and I was on maternity leave from my job as a social worker. During our walk, the conversation turned to the performing-arts classes Zoe led for children with disabilities.
While the children were talented and many were passionate about pursuing modeling and acting, there was sadly a lack of inclusion among traditional fashion brands, advertising, and media for those with a disability or visible difference of any sort. Not only did this lack of representation seem unfair, it also wasn't exactly business-savvy considering people who live with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world.
The more we discussed it, the more we began to ask ourselves, "If no one out there is representing people with disabilities and differences, why don't we?" Between my social-work background and Zoe's work as a model and drama teacher, we had experience working with underrepresented groups.
Despite the fact that neither of us had ever worked at a talent agency before, we decided to join forces and launch Zebedee Management representing disabled and visibly different models, actors, and influencers who up until then had been virtually excluded.
We began by inviting Zoe's students to apply and reached out to various disability groups seeking talent from within their community.
Word spread quickly, and before we knew it hundreds of applications came pouring in
Talent was never going to be our challenge — getting clients to sign our talent was the biggest obstacle. We decided instead of waiting for jobs to come in casting people with disabilities or visible differences, we would simply pitch our talent for traditional commercial jobs.
In the beginning. it wasn't easy. Many casting agents simply paid us lip service with no intention of actually booking our talent, but we continued trying.
Then a month after launching, we locked in two major bookings. One was for a print ad for Disney with child model Grace Wharton, and the other was for the Teatum Jones runway show during London Fashion Week with model Vicki Balch, who lost her leg in the Alton Towers accident.
Knowing our models and actors are happy and successful never gets old
Every time we get a call or receive a note from one of our models sharing their positive experiences with us, it just reinforces our mission.
One of our models named Louisa sent us a note saying: "I was always scared of what society would think of a young person in a wheelchair and I was afraid that people would judge, but then I found Zebedee, who wanted me for my disability rather than looking at my disability as a bad thing. They wanted me to spread awareness and make disability beautiful and change society's thoughts and how they see disability."
Another of our model's named Roisin said: "I honestly feel so grateful to be part of something so special. The opportunities that Zebedee has given me are amazing. If me two years ago spoke to me now, she would be astonished and so proud, and that is because of the Zebedee community. Sometimes I feel like pinching myself because I feel so lucky. Also, I am amazed that I am part of the change I want to see."
Hearing this type of feedback from our models makes it all worth it.
It's been a challenge to shift age-old misconceptions about disability, but it feels like we're finally turning a corner
Things have gotten quite busy for us since the end of the first UK lockdown in July 2020. We're four-times busier in terms of bookings since the year before and although we aren't certain why, there's definitely been a shift in both the public and industry's views about disability-inclusive media.
In the last few years, our clients have worked with some of the biggest brands out there, including Disney, Gucci, Estee Lauder, Amazon, Primark, Marks & Spencer, and Tommy Hilfiger.
Today, we have offices in the US, UK, Europe, and Australia and work with 500 models, spanning from infants to senior citizens. Our models represent a wide range of disabilities, including wheelchair users, amputees/limb differences, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, dwarfism, blindness, hearing impairments and deafness, as well as people with alternative appearances such as vitiligo, albinism, alopecia, scars, and mastectomy. We also recently began representing trans, nonbinary, and plus-sized individuals.
One of our most sought-after talents is 19-year-old Ellie Goldstein, the first major model with Down syndrome. After she did a campaign with Gucci, they posted about her on Instagram and she received more than 855,000 likes, nearly twice as many likes as Gucci's post featuring Harry Styles — which says a lot!
We're not just a booking agency. For our talent and their families, we're also a support network.
We also host a variety of workshops and social opportunities and even our own annual catwalk to help build up confidence, skill sets, and experience for our models.
Our mission goes far beyond getting our talent into campaigns. It's to redefine beauty as a whole and ensure it represents disability and inclusion across the board — because at the end of the day, talent and beauty should be based on so much more than what we've been groomed to accept as "the norm."